x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Children of Misurata hit hard in Libyan town ravaged by fighting

Salsabel Hussein screams every night in fear. Sometimes she screams for her father, who remains missing more than three months after he was captured by Qaddafi's troops, her home in the rebel Libyan town of Misrata destroyed by tanks and gunfire.

A family walks past the ruins of Tripoli Street in Misurata, where the firefights have left many children emotionally and psychologically scarred.
A family walks past the ruins of Tripoli Street in Misurata, where the firefights have left many children emotionally and psychologically scarred.

MISURATA // At just 6 years of age, Salsabel Hussein can explain the difference between a Grad rocket and an RPG.

In the past five months she has seen her sister injured by shrapnel, her father dragged away by Colonel Muammar Qaddafi's men, and her home destroyed by tanks and gunfire.

At her tender age, from the windows of her home where 15 families took shelter before the violent clashes between government and rebel fighters forced them to evacuate, she witnessed death and destruction on a scale that few will see in a lifetime.

"I saw a rocket blow up a cow one time," she said casually while playing in the courtyard of the public school she now shelters in with her mother, three siblings and three other families. "When it fell down, the pieces went everywhere. I took a piece home because I didn't want to be scared anymore. I wanted to be a brave girl, but my uncle made me throw it away."

The once bustling city of Misurata was formally a nerve centre for business and trade. Its Mediterranean port made the city one the wealthiest in Libya, but since the onset of Libya's uprising on February 17, Misurata has seen some of the heaviest fighting in a region ravaged by conflict. Dozens of destroyed tanks lie scattered throughout the streets. Building after building lie in ruins. Authorities estimate 65 per cent of the city has been destroyed.

The Misurata medical committee has registered 750 deaths from the fighting, but the true number of the fatalities is likely to surpass 1,000, said committee member Dr Aiman Abushahma. Almost 8,000 have been injured.

"For me, all of them are civilians because even those who take a gun are businessmen, engineers, students - none of us are soldiers," said Dr Abushahma. "We only take arms because we have seen what Qaddafi has done to us. If we weren't needed at the hospital, we'd be out there on the front line too." Today the front line snakes its way from coast to coast around 40 kilometres from the city's outer suburbs, keeping Misurata cut off by land.

Misurata Port provides the only transport for supplies and evacuation of the critically injured. Both the city and the port suffer daily shelling by Grad rockets, which are launched from mobile platforms, as opposed to rocket propelled grenades, for example. Targets are indiscriminate.

As Salsabel plays with her sisters, machine-gun fire suddenly erupts in the distance. The children duck and run for cover terrified before sheepishly re-emerging moments later.

Eman Moktar, a pregnant mother who also shelters at the school with her six children, said: "Most of them still have trouble sleeping at night. One of the girls [Salsabel] screams every night in fear. Sometimes she screams for her father. Nowhere is safe in Misurata." Her father remains missing more than three months after he was captured.

Others have been more fortunate. For example, Hussien Tuhami Shaala, 26, said he was captured by Qaddafi troops on March 19. He had not fought with the rebels and had never fired a weapon. Fleeing sniper fire as he made his way home, he took shelter in the house of three young brothers. Moments later the door was blown open by an RPG, and soldiers tied their hands with wire and took them to a building with another Egyptian man.

Mr Shaala said they were blindfolded with socks, brutalised and forced to walk barefoot over broken glass.

Mr Shaala said he was taken in the back of a jeep with one of the brothers. The other two brothers remain missing. En route to a secluded army base, Mr Shaala said he saw tanks and heavy weapons, soldiers looting homes and shops and bodies lying in the street.

"All the way they keep firing into the air screaming "Rats, Rats" and soldiers would run out to hit and curse us," he said.

For four days they were held in a small room with 26 men, tortured and in one instant forced to walk over the body of the bludgeoned Egyptian man who had been captured with them.

As Nato began bombing Qaddafi's troops within the city, the prisoners were loaded into minivans and taken to Zliten 50km away. After lining them up underneath a bridge, ready for execution, one soldier ordered them to be released instead. Mr Shaala and the remaining brother took shelter with a local family before embarking on a perilous four-day walk back to Misurata, almost six weeks after their capture.

The situation is slowly improving. The phone lines are still down, most schools and government departments remain closed and electricity supplies are sketchy, but food and medical supplies are trickling back into the city. Scattered shops are slowly beginning to reopen.

A line of people curved through the street from the doors of Al Raha bank last week, the first bank to open in more than four months. Misurata has been functioning with few wages being paid during that time.

A rebel spokesman, Ibrahim Beatelmal, said about 75 per cent of men aged from 17 to 55 have spent time on the front lines. The rest - doctors, mechanics, utility workers - do their part to keep the city functioning without remuneration.

Volunteers ranging from children to old men work daily to clear the rubble-strewn streets. Those with cars run a free taxi service. Produce stores give food for free to customers who cannot afford to pay. Teachers are forming volunteer groups to run classes and activities to provide the children with an escape from the devastation around them.

"We all have the same idea, to work together and rebuild our city," Mr Beatelmal said. "It will be better than before. Misurata was nothing. Visit here in five years and you will see the city we will build."

But for now, violence continues. For Salsabel and her older sisters, it is frightening, but the youngest sibling, 5-year-old Amina appears less concerned.

"I got two new grown-up teeth already during this war. When I'm big enough I want to join the rebels and drive a tank and kill Qaddafi," she said proudly while pulling her gum down to display her new teeth.

"In our house," she said, "they wrote 'God, Qaddafi and Libya' on our wall, but we don't say that anymore. Now we say 'God, the people and Libya'."